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Local suicide awareness group formed
Friday, September 14, 2012
By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer
A local group named Suicide Survivors Collaborative that has been meeting monthly to discuss what can be done to address this area’s high suicide rates has announced four initiatives.
Jim Tobin, executive director of Piedmont Community Services, said the four initiatives are: support groups for people affected by suicide, to begin in early October; a community forum Sept. 29 at Patrick Henry Community College; an awareness walk on Oct. 20; and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST).
Other initiatives are being discussed for later implementation, he said.
Suicide Survivors Collaborative was formed after the Martinsville Bulletin published a series of articles about suicides in late 2011 and early this year and reports of high local suicide rates.
Tobin said there has been “impressive” grassroots community concern shown about the issue in recent months. For instance, he said, a number of people have come forward and said, “How can I help?” and some people have seemed more open about discussing the topic of suicide.
On average, about 20 people have been attending monthly meetings of the Suicide Survivors Collaborative, about three-quarters of whom have been affected by suicide, Tobin said. Also, several agencies have been represented, including CONTACT, the health department, Piedmont Community Services and Memorial Hospital.
The Rev. Thurman Echols, pastor of Moral Hill Missionary Baptist Church, has been involved from early on, as have some others, Tobin said.
The overriding goal of the four initiatives announced Wednesday and ones that may be implemented in the future is to reduce the area’s high suicide rates, according to Tobin.
There were 269 suicides in the West Piedmont Health District, which is composed of Henry, Patrick and Franklin counties and Martinsville, in the 10 most recent years for which statistics were available (2001-2010), according to Virginia Department of Health (VDH) statistics. That number includes the 132 suicides in the district between 2006 and 2010.
By locality, there were 129 suicides in Henry County from 2001-10, including 72 from 2006-10; 26 in Martinsville from 2001-10, including eight from 2006-10; 43 suicides in Patrick County from 2001-2010, including 23 from 2006-2010; and 71 in Franklin County from 2001-10, including 29 from 2006-10.
For the period 2001-10, suicide rates per 100,000 population averaged annually (rounded) 22.4 for Henry County, 17.2 for Martinsville, 21.6 for Patrick County, 13.7 for Franklin County and 11.3 for Virginia, according to VDH statistics. So Henry and Patrick counties’ average rates were nearly twice the state average for that 10-year period.
Two seven-week support groups for people struggling to cope with the effects of suicide are planned for Henry County/Martinsville. One will meet on Tuesdays, starting Oct. 2, and one will meet on Thursdays, starting Oct. 4. Both groups will meet from 6:30 to 8 p.m., and locations will be announced.
Tobin said each support group will be limited to about eight participants and will have two to three facilitators. Facilitators have undergone intensive training by Kimberly Herford, a transformational counselor in New York who grew up in Martinsville, according to Tobin and a Bulletin article. The group facilitators will teach the students a curriculum developed by Herford, Tobin said.
A handout says the mission of support groups is to provide a safe place for survivors to share their experiences (thoughts and feelings), educate survivors in healthy coping and healing skills, provide an opportunity for survivors to learn from the struggles and victories of others in the group, and “normalize” the suicide bereavement process.
Tobin said typically there are strong emotions in people left behind by suicide, including grief as well as anger at the person who died by suicide. He said suicide has an added dimension beyond normal bereavement because there are feelings of “This didn’t need to happen.”
For more information about the support groups in Henry County/Martinsville, call 634-4250. Groups will be advertised in Patrick County as well, Tobin said.
A support group is planned to start in Rocky Mount in January, Tobin said, adding there may be additional support groups in the area in the future depending on need.
Restoring Hope: A Conversation About Suicide, a community forum, will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Sept. 29 at Patrick Henry Community College, Walker Fine Arts Building theater, according to Tobin and Bonnie Favero, prevention manager at Piedmont Community Services.
The focus of the forum will be a panel discussion led by Herford and a dialogue with those attending about the area’s suicide rate and what can be done about it, according to Favero and Tobin. Panelists will include clergy, counselors, law enforcement and someone left behind by suicide, Favero said. The panel discussion will be from about 1:30 to 3 p.m.
Herford — a musician, singer and songwriter — will perform music that reinforces her grief work, Tobin said.
Angela Hairston will talk about the Dover Hairston Project. The initiative was created by Herford, a friend of the Hairston family, and is named for Angela’s father, Dover Hairston of Martinsville, who died by suicide Jan. 22, Angela Hairston has said.
In an email earlier this year, Angela Hairston said the purposes of the initiative are “to help make meaning out of what seems so meaningless; ... break the silence and raise public awareness in the Martinsville-Henry County area about mental and emotional health issues; provide information on the potentially devastating consequences if depression and other mental health issues are left untreated; and help eradicate the stigma that is often associated with seeking treatment for these conditions.”
Favero said educational information will be distributed at the forum, and there will be a ceremony of remembrance of loved ones who died by suicide. She noted that Bethann James, executive director of CONTACT, will make opening remarks at the forum, and Tobin will make closing remarks.
Tobin said information and dialogue at the community forum are designed as the initial community discussion on the issue.
An awareness walk will be held Oct. 20 at the SS Loop at the Smith River Sports Complex, James said.
Details for the event are still being worked out. There will be a reception and meeting, registration will start at 2 p.m., and the walk will start about 2:30 p.m. Participants will walk about 1.5 miles.
There will be opportunities to talk about experiences and to fellowship, as well as entertainment and maybe a launch of bubbles, James said. The event will end about 5 p.m.
“The purpose is to bring awareness to this issue, which we think is in epidemic proportion in our health district,” she said.
Anyone interested in participating in the free event should call CONTACT at 638-8980.
Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST)
This is a two-day training that Tobin described as intensive and using best practices to intervene to help prevent suicides. Piedmont Community Services already has trained about three-fourths of its counselors in ASIST and plans to train other staff, Tobin said.
CONTACT will offer ASIST training Sept. 20 and 21, and ASIST training is planned in Patrick County, probably in October, Tobin said.
Officials plan to offer ASIST training once a quarter for about the next two years, Tobin said. The training is free.
ASIST training is beneficial for school counselors, law enforcement, ministers, social workers/counselors, CONTACT volunteers and others who may encounter people at risk of suicide, Tobin said.
Officials will evaluate the initial initiatives and look long term at what can be done on a more permanent basis in education and prevention, Tobin said.
“We’re not terribly clear on how to do that,” he said. Local officials will be seeking advice from Virginia Department of Health experts and consultants, he added.